It's Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme chosen for 2014 is Anxiety, something that affects children with special needs to an extraordinary degree.
All children are anxious on occasion, especially at times of unwanted or unexpected change or when something goes wrong in their lives. But for some, especially those who have a learning disability, an autism spectrum condition or who have experienced some type of trauma, anxiety can become a life-affecting condition.
For young people with special needs, anxiety can exacerbate existing behavioural issues as our columnist Angela Kelly explained about her son Monty in her column last Friday. In some children (and some adults), being overwhelmed by anxiety can even cause a temporary "shut down" when anxiety or fear makes their brain 'freeze' up.
According to the charity Anxiety UK, as many as 1 in 6 young people will experience an anxiety problem at some point in their lives. This is something I can relate to with both my children and also with myself. For me, anxiety began early stemming from of a less than ideal childhood as I wrote about in this post.
I remember aged three, biting through a glass at my mother's second wedding (she had three in total), anxious and overwhelmed by the day's events and all the strange people in my home. Even now, I can remember the feeling of being surrounded - hemmed in - by big adults talking loudly, just as my teeth cracked through the glass. Of course this was in the dark distant past of 1970 and it was put down to (Oh, don't you love it?) attention-seeking but of course it was nothing of the sort.
My sons of course, have Asperger Syndrome (who knew that would happen?) and of course, have innate anxiety problems of their own and I am extremely sensitive to this. I know how to spot the signs of trouble brewing, identify what's causing it and try hard to break it down with them so that their fears are minimised.
Now as teenagers, I know instinctively when something is likely to cause them anxiety. I know that for them, it is important not to let it become internalised so that it takes a hold of them and leads to impulsive behaviour or refusing to do something. These days, it's getting harder to spot because they are getting better at covering it up - but that doesn't mean it isn't still there. However because they are older, they want and need, to learn to deal with their anxious feelings for themselves.
Before we knew their diagnosis, I remember Son1 aged three at Disneyland Paris, running towards a ride with his brother and Dad. As he reached the gate, anxiety gripped him and he refused to go on. He couldn't verbalise what was wrong but it was one of the earliest signs that there would be trouble ahead. Now aged 16, he has this week started his GCSEs and although he is nervous, he seems to be handling it well.
Son2 has had many difficulties with anxiety which can lead to a refusal to speak as he shuts out the world. Or, with us, if he is concerned he may be in trouble, he will interrupt to finish off our sentences, speaking over us with what he is expecting us to say, to prevent us from saying the words ourselves. He is trying to manage the situation and keep it - and us - under his control.
For myself, these days I have a very good 'game face' and I use binaural tones in particular as a management tool for both anxiety and for pain.
I do know, however, how destructive anxiety can be if left untreated by talking therapy, medication or even meditation. Even if it is not our own regular companion, I'm betting we all know someone who is affected.
It could be the relative or partner who has so many "no go" conversation areas because they're anxiety triggers. Or the office co-worker who tries to micromanage everyone because they are overly anxious about anything going wrong. Or maybe a friend who disappears on you or avoids difficult situations because they're worried about failing, being judged, not knowing what to say or being scared they'll let you down.
Anxiety blights or sometimes even ruins lives. It is becoming more recognised in the workplace as a problem for over-stretched staff and in education with our relentlessly results-driven school system. It's more a surprise if someone isn't anxious!
Of course a spot of anxiety isn't the same as Generalised Anxiety Disorder. But if you are already sensitive to anxiety whether you are a child or an adult, then given enough external stress, that 'spot' can turn into a problem that needs to be treated to avoid long term damage.
We don't want this for ourselves and we don't want it for our children whether they have special needs or not. But help is at hand. GPs are now often able to refer people for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy if needed or to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service in your area (although these vary in quality) and if you can afford it, there are plenty of therapists of all types around to speak to.
- Anxiety UK
- Young Minds
- Mental Health Foundation
- Minded (for people working in mental health with young people)
- CAMHS information from young Minds